ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 14, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 33
Columns - Political Column

Referendum possibilities floated

  • Rebels likely to get 10 portfolios, first monk in Cabinet
  • Anura, Mangala likely to be stripped in major reshuffle
  • Furious JVP gets ready for battle against govt.

By Our Political Editor

Whoever said there are no permanent friends in politics but only permanent interests seemed dead right. Such an axiom has always remained apt in Sri Lanka. Yesterday's friends are turning out to be today's arch enemy. In turn, the arch enemy is turning to be the bosom buddies.

Just 13 months ago, President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted to power as the fifth President of Sri Lanka carried virtually on the shoulders of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), his staunch ally at the time. This week, JVP leaders howled in protest as their party men who worked and voted for Rajapaksa were being baton charged. The incident was when JVP trade unionists invaded the Transport Ministry and were manhandled by the Police. JVP leaders publicly accused Rajapaksa's Ministers of corruption thereafter.

As the friction between the govt. and the JVP reaches flashpoint, JVP trade unionists are seen being attacked by Police during a protest at the Transport Ministry premises last Tuesday.

If the JVP was distancing itself from the Rajapaksa Presidency it installed, moving closer to him were stalwarts of the United National Party (UNP), who championed the cause of their leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe at the presidential elections. Many then were not only bitter critics of the SLFP candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but criticized him personally during the polls campaign.

In the coming week some of these stalwarts are expected to shake Rajapaksa's hand and swear allegiance to him and his Government. This week, two key players, the UNP's one time deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya and former SLFPer G.L. Peiris were busy in behind-the-scene negotiations. Most of them were with President's Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. The talks centered not only on their cross-over. That was an absolute certainty. The talks were about crossing-over with numbers. President Rajapaksa wanted his Government side to be with at least 113 members in the 225 seat Parliament. That would give him a simple, but absolute majority in Parliament and keep the JVP at arm's length. If he won the Presidential elections with the JVP's vociferous support, and mass mobilization expertise, it was not needed now. And this week showed the numbers from the UNP were available, even more than what Rajapaksa was expecting.

The formidable line up to join or canvassed to join the Government, besides the duo that was negotiating, included Milinda Moragoda, Rajitha Senaratne, Dharmadasa Banda, M.H. Mohamed, Bandula Gunawardena, Manodhe Wijeratne, Chandrasiri Ariyawansa Sooriyaratchi, Neomal Perera , Hemakumara Nanayakkara, Navin Dissanayake, Ranjit Madduma Bandara, Edward Gunawardena and P. Dayaratne. There were reports yesterday that a further four MPs were negotiating with Rajapaksa independent of the larger group. If all that is correct, a total of more than a dozen UNP MPs would cross over. But still the numbers were being hotly disputed.

On Friday, Rajapaksa held a meeting at Temple Trees with a Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) delegation led by Rauf Hakeem. Also on hand was senior Presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa. Insiders say though Hakeem was going along with a dialogue, he is unlikely to join. But they insist four other SLMC parliamentarians crossing over is now also a certainty, and that Basheer Segu Dawood, a close confidante of Milinda Moragoda is the go-between with the Rajapaksa Administration.

Soon after his arrival from Tanzania after a private visit, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe met individually with most of those billed to cross over. He had mixed reactions from them. When a journalist asked G.L. Peiris, who is billed to double sommersault back to the SLFP, he replied, "who will announce they would be crossing over. They will do it, and say so only then."

By Wednesday this week, it became clear that the cross-over was going to take place with the required numbers that Rajapaksa wanted from the UNP were he to consider the option. President Rajapaksa obtained a "mandate" from the Cabinet that the Government would receive any opposition member who is crossing over. It was the General Secretary of the SLFP, Minister Maithripala Sirisena who told his colleagues who were holding more than one portfolio that they should sacrifice at least one ministry they were now holding. Indications emerged that Jeyaraj Fernandopulle would give up Consumer Affairs. There was speculation that Mangala Samaraweera would give up Foreign Affairs and Aviation, and hold the Ports portfolio only. The Aviation Ministry was to go to Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella. Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister Sarath Amunugama was billed to get a transfer as the new Tourism Minister. The present incumbent Anura Bandaranaike had already cleared his drawers in the Ministry. He is billed to be the Minister of Co-operative Development, but is unhappy shouting to those at Acland House, "Don't they know I am the son of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike", and that he deserved a better portfolio than that.

There were indications yesterday that the size of the Cabinet will now increase to 35 Ministers with 35 deputies. A total of nine portfolios have been offered to Karu Jayasuriya and party though they were asking for ten. Sections of the Jayasuriya faction had also asked that Jayasuriya be made Prime Minister, but there has been no Government response to that.

It was ironical that it was Jayasuriya who not long ago directly admonished Rajapaksa to play by ICC (International Cricket Council) rules - in other words to play by Queensbury rules; to 'play cricket' with a straight bat, and all that. This was in the aftermath of the Mahinda Samarasinghe and Rambukwella crossovers. Jayasuriya told a journalist later that if Rajapaksa stooped to doing 'jaraa (low down) things', like taking crossovers from the UNP, then the UNP would have no alternative but to withdraw its support for the Government.

In this backdrop, there has been another significant development. On the instructions of President Rajapaksa, Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva has successfully ensured that no sessions of Parliament are held in the second half of this month - January.

The next sessions will thus be held in February. The reason is not known. There were many guesses in political circles as to what this was all about. One was to pave the way for the Cabinet re-shuffle and to allow time for Ministers to familiarize themselves before attending Parliament. Other was the fear of protests by Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians over some planned matters connected with the military.

The government tried to down-play the suspension of Parliament by saying that the Government Press was overworked with printing assignments, and that this was one of the main issues for a postponement of legislative work. But JVP sources claim that there is something more sinister than meets the eye.

Ever since the Rajapaksa Government came into being, its partners, the JVP and JHU have been regularly sent draft bills for their study before they are presented in Parliament. This is a natural practice in view of the support the two nationalist parties gave Rajapaksa and ensured his victory.

However, this led to problems for the government recently when it tried to push through with the Ceylon Electricity Board reforms bill. The JVP obstructed this legislation with threats of strikes and what not. Now, there seems to be an un-official go-slow in sending these draft bills, especially to the JVP, and the way the political trends are going, there is every chance that this flow of draft bills to the JVP may entirely stop in time to come.

The immediate outcome of the UNP cross-over is the end of the MoU between the SLFP and the UNP. Our front page story refers to Ranil Wickremesinghe giving an indication that the MoU is in serious danger of being annulled.

On the sidelines of these developments is a sharp tussle between President Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Samaraweera wrote a second letter to Rajapaksa citing instances of various forms of interference in his Ministry.
The President confessed to his aides that he was unable to understand what Samaraweera was planning to do, and was receiving the support of media that was not favourable to the President. Furthermore, Samaraweera who is not in the habit of visiting the Maha Nayakes in Kandy, had done so.

Amidst the ongoing tussle, Samaraweera is peeved that Rajapaksa ignored his protests and appointed Palitha Kohona, Peace Secretariat Secretary General as the new Foreign Ministry Secretary. Samaraweera and the Foreign Ministry had tried to stick to their guns and have a Foreign Service official appointed to the post, but the President had made it quite clear to his inner circle that he was not happy with the senior officials at the Foreign Office. Kohona related better to him.

The official photograph released by the President's media office showed Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva present, adding fuel to the fire, but officials tried to play down the significance by saying that de Silva was present because a new Health Ministry Secretary was also appointed at the time.

Kohona telephoned Samaraweera to tell him of his appointment on Thursday. Samaraweera was down with a cold and had cancelled all his engagements but assured the new Secretary he would give him an appointment to meet. By next week though, Kohona may have to meet another Foreign Minister even as Samaraweera plans a visit to New Delhi - cold or no cold.

While the crossover from the UNP to the Rajapaksa Presidency is the main focus of all political-watchers, an interesting development is well past the embryo stage. The formal entry of the JHU into the Rajapaksa Presidency.

If this is to become a reality, according to Presidential quarters, at least one JHU MP is going to be inducted into the Rajapaksa Cabinet - and this country is going to see another first - a clergyman sitting in the Cabinet of Ministers. And who will that clergyman be ? Ven. Omalpe Sobhita, MP is the likely choice say some.

In the meantime, Presidential circles are concerned that the Opposition - which now includes to some extent - the JVP, is whipping up the theory that the cross-overs from the UNP, and the inclusion of the JHU in the Government are but a prelude to a snap General Election.

To counter this, the Rajapaksa political think-tank is floating a story that they would not go for a snap poll - but a Referendum, instead. Now, isn't that letting loose a cat among the pigeons, and if that story gains currency in the coming weeks, we are going to be guaranteed of some political sparks ahead.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.